Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Our greatest thinkers, artists, innovators and scholars have in common a curiosity that persists throughout life. They are open to new ideas and never stop learning. As Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

All dimensions of wellness “act and interact” in ways that impact quality of life. Growth in the intellectual dimension helps us pro-actively solve problems, widens our understanding of the world and its people, and gives us a sense of control over events. Intellectual well-being is a key factor in maintaining resilience in the face of stress because it enables us to think critically, to see opposing points of view and to trust ourselves to make good decisions.IMG_0416

Recent findings from the Benefits of Lifelong Learning project show that non-job related adult education increases self-confidence and well-being, leads to greater tolerance of and trust in other people, and broadens social networks. Adult learners become more health-conscious, start doing more volunteer work in their communities, and show increased motivation to further their studies. Learning begets learning, or as daVinci noted, “Learning never exhausts the mind.”

Earlier this week, I attended a funeral where a young man eulogized his grandfather by sharing with us some of his wisdom. The older man was intensely proud of his grandson, yet he often said to him (with a smile), “Remember – you’re always a freshman.” Not only was he saying, “Don’t get cocky,” he also meant that we’ve always got something to learn, we’ll always be new to something. Or as John Wooden put it, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

There’s often a sigh of relief at graduations – whether high school, college or grad school – that formal education is finished, at least for a while. But after some time passes, many of us miss those days in school, and not just because of the lifestyle. We miss being challenged, stimulated, exposed to new ideas, that buzz we get when we feel ourselves growing. Unfortunately modern life often distracts us from further intellectual pursuits – we get caught up in earning a living, raising a family, keeping up with the latest technology, and think that we don’t have the time or money or energy to take a class, learn a language or practice a musical instrument.

Fear sometimes holds people back too. Deciding to learn something new first requires us to admit that there’s something we don’t know. That’s more difficult for some of us than we’d like to admit. We don’t really want to be “a freshman” again. What if we fail? What if we’re not good at something? Can our fragile egos take the risk?

Fortunately, there are ways to dip a toe in the water of intellectual growth if signing up for that degree program or those cello lessons is too big a step right now:

  • Read a book for fun. Yes, fun. It might be non-fiction on a topic that interests you; or try fiction in a genre different than your usual taste.
  • Attend a seminar or lecture. Local newspapers are usually full of listings for free events, at least in big metropolitan areas.
  • Write. A private journal or a blog such as this one will stimulate critical thinking and send you out looking for information and ideas.
  • Play old-fashioned board games or card games. Many of these challenge you to think strategically.
  • Watch a TED talk. They have thousands of short lectures that offer “ideas worth spreading.”
  • Stay up to date with events in the world, but don’t just accept what you see and read. Question it, look for the opposite view.

There’s a scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth Bennet that he doesn’t have the talent for easily conversing that some people do. Elizabeth counters by saying that she doesn’t play piano as well as some women, but she always took that to be her own fault for not practicing enough. Ultimately we are each responsible for our own growth and development, aren’t we?

How Do You Play?

Is it purposeless, spontaneous, an antidote to boredom or loneliness? Does it involve risk, excitement, pleasure or freedom? If so, you play like a child — and that’s good news.

Childhood play has recently become a target of our attempts to help kids be more physically active, but children themselves have a very different idea of what constitutes play. And their perspective could help us help ourselves as well as them.

IMGIn a child’s view, playing has no goal. It is the ultimate in present moment awareness – there is no desired end result – it is an end in itself. That’s one of the take-aways from a new study conducted at the University of Montreal. Other important findings are that risk-taking is pleasurable for children, helping them learn how to cope with life’s unpredictability; that play doesn’t necessarily have to be active; and that they feel ambiguous about scheduled play activities. For both kids and adults, this is a reminder that the social and emotional benefits of play are every bit as important as the physical benefits.

According to Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play, being playful helps us be more adaptable, leads to trust and benefits brain development. He has studied the rough-and-tumble play of animals, as well as babies’ early play with their mothers. Play is driven by curiosity about the world and each other, and social play is often the glue that holds us together. Brown says that “The opposite of play isn’t work — it’s depression.”

Play can help us be more creative. John Cleese recommends using humor to enhance creativity, because it makes us more playful and relaxed. Brown says that play is a mediator between the brain and the hand. He has observed that design students who can’t creatively solve problems haven’t worked with their hands enough, doing things like playing and tinkering.

In order to “infuse” your life with more play, Brown recommends spending time with children, surrounding yourself with playful people, and looking back at your “play history“. What kinds of play did you enjoy as a child? Can you make an emotional connection between your childhood play and your life now? What is the story you tell about playing?

When I was a child, much of my play was unstructured. I grew up in a big family, and there was always someone around to play with. Because I didn’t have any brothers, our play often involved dress-up and make-believe rather than physical play. We had a music box that played the wedding march, and we would take turns putting on a bridal “veil” and playing wedding. We would take our large collection of “Little Golden” books and make paths around our bedroom with them, or build a fort or tent with a blanket thrown over a clothesline or picnic table. I also enjoyed solitary activities like reading, paint-by-number and crocheting. Our physical needs were satisfied with bike riding and occasional games of softball with the boys next door.

I’m still a fan of make-believe in my preference for dramas and fiction, and my dislike of reality TV. My exercise most often comes in the form of activities I do by myself (running, biking) rather than “team” sports, since I had little of that during childhood. But I try to keep myself open to ways of playing that I’m less comfortable with — partner yoga with my husband expanded my ability to trust; snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding have helped me enjoy playing in the water; taking more opportunities to laugh and be less serious about life has helped me relax.image

Play is whatever feels like fun and freedom to you: sports, games, puzzles, playing with a pet, laughing at a movie, acting in a play. Play is what makes you feel like your child self again. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

It’s time to shake things up a bit. Get the dust out of the corners, check for cracks in the foundation and clear the clutter. Fall – the time of new clothes, new schools, new jobs – is the perfect time for spring cleaning – not just in your home, but maybe in your life.

imageTransitions into summer and winter feel almost seamless to me, but moving into spring or fall is always more significant. Wardrobes change, colors change, and the association with the start of the school year never fades, no matter how long I’ve been out of school. That trepidation I felt as a child is reflected in the feelings that start after Labor Day – time to get serious about work, start new projects, and stop spending dreamy afternoons in the sun. Start asking, “What serves me well, what doesn’t?”

The idea of spring cleaning (or fall, in this case) has roots in various religious and cultural traditions, often connected to the start of the New Year. The Iranian word for the practice translates as “shaking the house”, and what better image is there for the clearing of clutter, both literal and figurative?

Two weeks ago, I happened to be in California when an earthquake actually did “shake the house”. But we don’t need something quite that dramatic to spur us to take a look at what needs a revamp. Unfortunately, we often view the clutter in our lives with a lot of negative self-judgment, which sometimes just causes us to procrastinate more. By encouraging yourself, rather than focusing on shame, you leave the personalizing behind, accept where you are now, and begin to think creatively about it.

Carolyn Koehnline, a therapist who helps people with clutter, recommends “clearing clutter with compassion.” A lot of times, the physical things we need to lose, as well as the relationships we need to change, are so loaded with emotion that we just get stuck. Koehnline recommends some writing prompts that help get you past the stuck point:

Finish the sentences:

If I keep it…..”

“If I let it go….”

Or make lists:

It is time to let go of….”

“It is time to keep….”

“It is time to make space for….”

Not only do these writing exercises help us visualize possible scenarios, they also solidify our intentions, making action more likely. Notice that the list-making is constructed in the present tense – instead of wishfully saying I will do this in the future, I create a world where I am doing this right now.

In a Slate magazine piece, J. Bryan Lowder also recommends reassessing all of the “passive systems” in your environment that enable clutter. Is there something about the way things are designed or placed in your home or office that encourages accumulation and confusion? What habits do you have that support disorder? Can you change your relationship with your space and your stuff?

Sarah Susanka, architect and author of the best-selling book, The Not So Big House, followed that up a few years ago with a book called The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters. It is a workbook for examining our relationship to time, space, work, and possessions. She says that often our desire for more stuff is really a way of covering up what our hearts are actually longing for – a life that is a true reflection of who we are.

When I moved a few months ago, I had to face my clutter head-on and make tough decisions about what it was time to let go of. In many ways, I am still in that process of creating a life that reflects who I am. But I remind myself that home isn’t the building we live in, the furniture we sit on or the things we own. As Sarah Susanka says, “Home is a way of being in one’s life.”

Look up. Reach out.

A student of mine once used the phrase, “the world inside my phone”, to describe the allure of technology. Like gravity, it attracts us with its promise of stimulation, information, affirmation and control. Inside the phone, we can adjust what we see, who we friend, how things look, how we respond, and most importantly, how the world views us. It can be as compulsive as a very powerful drug.

There’s a subway station in Washington where big crowds are often waiting for trains late in the evening. Sometimes when I’m there I just want to shout, “Look up!” because it seems that the majority of people, whether they are alone or with others, are staring down at their phones, lost in that world.Smartphone

I’m probably showing my age, but it troubles me to see this. One reason is physical safety – inattention on a crowded subway platform could lead to accidents, injury or becoming a victim of crime. But there’s also the issue of simple human interaction. Everyone laments those who ignore the actual people they’re with in favor of the device. What about the fact of our decreasing tolerance for interacting with anyone outside of our preferred group, whatever that might be?

Marc J. Dunkelman writes about this trend in his new book, The Vanishing Neighbor. He sees us losing relationships with those in our communities that he refers to as the “middle ring” – people who aren’t as close and familiar to us as family and friends, but are perhaps more than just acquaintances. In other words, people like our neighbors. We keep our inner ring close, and we pay attention to the distant outer ring via social media, but we often neglect the people living right next door, because we don’t have to acknowledge them or depend on them anymore. We can buy almost anything on-line, we can stare at our phones instead of making eye contact as we pass someone on the street, flip through our texts as we stand next to a co-worker in the elevator, maybe we don’t even order from a real person in a restaurant. We can keep all our interactions limited to people we deem to be like us. There’s an app that lets us decide where to shop based on politics. Another app steers us away from “sketchy” people and places. It’s all about control.

But there’s something lost by giving up the richness and randomness, and yes, even the danger, of everyday encounters: The chat with the neighbor in the street, saying hello to someone in an elevator, even arguing with the person who doesn’t agree with you. Of course it’s more comfortable to surround ourselves with the safe and familiar, the good and the beautiful. But just as Georges Braque said that “art is meant to disturb,” life should force us to question, to confront, to improve, to grow, to see inequity and injustice and be motivated to change it, to see suffering and hurt and want to end it. If we stay in the world inside our phones, what are we not seeing?

IMG_0385Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Dave Eggers novel, The Circle, that this digital immersion scares me. Eggers’ fictional Circle is a company that combines all social media, and more, under one roof. It’s as if Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and virtually every app were integrated and controlled by one organization. As the main character becomes more caught up in her job at the Circle, she ultimately sacrifices her family, her old friends, her privacy and her solitude because she so desperately wants to be a part of this far-reaching entity.

 

Our reality probably won’t mimic this fiction, but there are enough similarities already to give us pause. Before we become the tools of our tools (to paraphrase Thoreau), let’s not forget how to use the powerful apps we were born with. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? Step outside the circle. Be surprised.

 

 

 

Like it or not, we are formed by all of life’s experiences. Sometimes our faces or bodies hold the story; other times it stays hidden in the recesses of our hearts. But how often do we stop to feel gratitude for the bad experiences, the things that “don’t kill us, but make us stronger”? The full story of a life contains all that can be held of both past and present. So when the moon is at its fullest, it’s a fitting time to celebrate everything and everyone who helped us get to where we are, says yoga teacher Jo Tastula.

Tastula’s full moon yoga practice inspired me to explore the abundance of my existence. The poses are expansive and opening, sweeping in the totality of what I have observed, encountered, undergone or remembered. To celebrate our fullness, she says, we must include everything and exclude nothing. That means that all of the pain, the missteps, the bad judgments and embarrassments must be a part of the whole. We cannot selectively acknowledge just the joyful moments, successes and correct decisions that have made up our lives.image

Whenever I even remotely start to regret some of my youthful mistakes, I remind myself that I would never have met my husband if I had done things much differently. We were from opposite ends of the country, living in dissimilar circumstances, at very different places in our lives, when we met by chance in a foreign country. We really only had one chance to meet. The song “On My Way to You” beautifully expresses the idea that even the crooked roads we’ve traveled contribute to the goodness of life:

I relive the roles I’ve played

The tears I may have squandered

The many pipers I have paid

Along the roads I’ve wandered

Yet all the time I knew it

Love was somewhere out there waiting

Though I may regret a kiss or two

If I had changed a single day

What went amiss or went astray

I may have never found my way to you

The falls along the road help us find our way. Hardship and hassles round us out, hone our appreciation for the good times, teach us patience and tolerance, make us smarter and more interesting. So when we practice gratitude, why not give thanks for them too?

This week, for example, I had a lovely visit with my sister, read a good book, enjoyed phone calls with my kids, and did some meaningful volunteer work, all of which I loved. But I also got bug bites all over my body, had to deal with some issues in my house, and was screamed at by two separate people who didn’t like the bumper sticker on my car. Much as I might like to exclude those negative experiences,  I can’t. They are part of the whole picture of my week.

The full moon is visible to us when it is completely illuminated by the sun, as seen from Earth. It is something we perceive only because of the light shining on it. The full moon gives us the opportunity to illuminate all the nooks and crannies of our lives, to take a look at what’s in there that we’ve tried to hide, and to be grateful for our capacity to hold it all.

 

Creating an oasis

“We become habituated to the familiar, but the familiar isn’t always healthy,” says yoga teacher Felicia Tomasko. Her words might apply to our relationships, our diets, our jobs, or our surroundings. Sometimes we get so used to living in situations that don’t benefit us that we forget there is an alternative. But look around – is your environment helping or hurting you?

Our minds and bodies are one big source of input, and the saying, “Garbage in, garbage out” seems appropriate. If our senses are bombarded by too much noise, tension, unpleasant colors, harsh light and bad air – if we don’t have someplace to serve as an oasis from all that – if we don’t feel safe and comfortable —  the environment will increase stress and contribute to poor health and lower productivity.

The renowned architect and designer Michael Graves says, “I believe well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it.” He doesn’t say that lightly. A recent profile in the Washington Post described how Graves was left paralyzed after an illness, and how his experiences turned his work in a new direction. He has first-hand awareness of how the color of a room can lift or sink one’s spirits, or how a lack of accessibility to perform everyday tasks can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. He is now taking on projects that rethink hospitals, senior living centers and housing for wounded military.

We can think of the environment on both the macro and micro levels. The term, “built environment” isn’t a household phrase yet, but it is widely used in the public health community. According to the Prevention Institute, the built environment consists of the “physical structures and infrastructure of communities”; it can encompass how land is zoned, how a community is designed, what kind of housing is available, transportation options and access to green space. The Prevention Institute has highlighted some recent projects that have contributed to healthier communities:

  • Building a jogging path through a cemetery in Los Angeles so that people without a park in their neighborhood would have a place to exercise and enjoy green space
  • Organizing a community to obtain a full-service grocery store in their area
  • Starting a project in Boston for lead-safe backyards for children to play in
  • Turning vacant lots into community gardens
  • Redesigning an unsafe intersection to make it more pedestrian and community-friendly
  • Engaging a community to create murals that improved the aesthetics of their Philadelphia neighborhoodNew York (2)

By changing the macro environment in even small ways, people may feel safer, may be able to eat more healthy foods, may enjoy more social support from the community and may have more opportunity to exercise. When a community buys in to projects like these, and uses the assets it has to bring them to fruition, the first project can often serve as a catalyst for on-going improvements to the environment.

Our micro environments, on the other hand, are sometimes easier, or at least quicker, to alter. With fewer people to please, it becomes simpler to take pro-active steps to create a healthier space. Think about how you feel in certain rooms. Are there particular places that you associate with stress? Are there others where you feel more calm or creative? What is it about the space that provokes those feelings? Is it the activities that take place there? Is it the design or usefulness of the area? Does it feel light or dark, cluttered or spacious? What can you change to make your space more conducive to health and well-being? Some things to consider are:

  • Having sources of natural light and good ventilation
  • Bringing nature indoors – with flowers, a plant, or even a picture of nature
  • Rearranging furniture, or even room uses, to better suit how you live and work
  • Painting your rooms in colors that please you, or calming colors like blues and greens
  • Creating sound that is pleasing – music, water, wind chimes
  • Setting aside a place in the home, even a small one, that is free of work, tension and dissension

Philip Johnson has said that “all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” Even without a great architect, can we create those places of contentment for ourselves?

 

Humans may be unique among species in our potential to be resilient in the face of change. Biological imperative drives most species to persevere in a programmed way even when circumstances become dire. The sea turtle returns to the same beach no matter how much development or predation occurs there. The monarch butterfly’s route to a certain Mexican forest is encoded in its DNA and it flies as if on auto-pilot. The salmon will swim upriver to spawn even when a dam is in its way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerseverance is necessary for our success too, and sometimes it’s enough. But today, more than ever before, the world is changing at a breathtaking pace and we need something more than drive and diligence. We need resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to change, to bounce back from losses and hardship, to thrive anew after experiencing adversity. Our resilience benefits us in small ways every day, but especially when life throws a big curveball our way. Think job loss, natural disaster or personal tragedy.

Resilience is about having inner strength, but it’s not about being a Lone Ranger kind of tough guy. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a resilient person is being socially connected: having supportive relationships, working collaboratively with others, and asking for help when necessary.

Our ability to be resilient isn’t fixed — it’s not even something we’re really born with. According to This Emotional Life, resilience develops as people grow up. We gradually gain more knowledge and experience, and that enhances the belief that we can cope with new situations. Ideally, we also learn self-management skills such as how to express emotions. And if we enjoy supportive relationships with our family and community, they help us gain trust and optimism.

Of course we’re all born with different kinds of temperaments, and most of us don’t grow up in that kind of ideal environment. So it comes as no surprise that many of us aren’t all that resilient. We become rigid in our beliefs, resistant to change, and unwilling to look for silver linings. We dig in our heels, deny that change is necessary and hold on to the status quo as long as possible.Detour

See, decide, believe. That’s how someone who resists change can change himself. Like any behavior change, first it’s necessary to see that you might not be so resilient, then decide you want to change. After that, start telling yourself that you are resilient. Believing it helps make it so, because brain research suggests that resilience depends on communication between the logical, prefrontal cortex part of the brain, and the limbic system, which is the seat of emotions. So what we say, what we think, the story we tell about ourselves, helps make the reality.

Other tips for building resilience come from the Mayo Clinic and the Centre for Confidence:

  • Try to see change as a meaningful challenge, and make each day have purpose
  • Learn from experience, and use it to build problem-solving strategies
  • Nurture connections with others; try to resolve any persistent conflicts with family or co-workers
  • Stay positive and hopeful
  • Know that you cannot control all events, but you can control your reaction to events
  • Take care of yourself – being physically, mentally and spiritually well prepares you to adapt to change.

Nothing lasts forever, change is a given and there are no guarantees. The headline of a piece in the Harvard Business Review said it best: “Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill.” Be ready.

The ancient eavesdropper

Nature's nuances in a nutshell

Charleston Through an Artist's eye

a blog about the history art and culture of Charleston and Edisto Island, South Carolina

Rachel Robinson Music

"Sing and delight in the joy it can bring."

Five Reflections

Books, Stories, Songs, Poetry, Or Reminiscing

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 163 other followers

%d bloggers like this: